By Jon King /

A motion to accept more than $1.5 million in funding from the Michigan Department of Health & Human Services to support the Livingston County Health Department (LCHD) in their Fiscal Year 2022 COVID-19 response failed on a 4-4 tie vote Wednesday morning by the Livingston County Board of Commissioners Finance Committee.

Voting against the motion were Commissioners Nakagiri, Drick, Smith and Plank, while Commissioners Griffith, Gross, Zajak and Helzerman were in favor. Commissioner Carol Sue Reader was absent.

The money would have been used for Contact Tracing, Case Investigation, Testing Coordination, Violation Monitoring, Wrap Around Services, COVID 19 Infection Prevention and CDC COVID Immunizations.

The meeting began with a Call to the Public in which more than 15 people spoke out against the board accepting the funding; many of them stating COVID misinformation and anti-vaccination talking points. However, the main theme from the speakers was a sense that by accepting the money, the county would become “agents of tyranny” in which the freedom of residents would be compromised.

Health Department Director Dianne McCormick spoke to that point, assuring commissioners that the money would be focused on providing services only to those who wanted them, specifically saying that COVID enforcement activities were not something they had taken part in in the past, nor planned to do in the future.

However, Commissioner Brenda Plank was one who said she just didn’t feel the money was needed. "If we don't approve this extra money, the vaccines will still come to the health department. It's just that we're not getting the money to go out and do all of these clinics and reaching out to people. It's more of a 'Come to the health department and get your vaccine.' I think you also mentioned that it helps pay for the staffing needed to give out these vaccines."

McCormick followed up by noting that the money was not just about vaccines, but the entirety of their response to a pandemic. "Vaccines is just a part of it. There's also the whole going out into the community and looking at the vulnerable situations, looking at outbreaks that may pop up, and our ability to really look at what's going on with outbreaks. Even in our vulnerable populations, our nursing homes, when we get cases in we're mandated to - this is a communicable disease - to follow up on communicable diseases through our contact tracing and case investigations."

Commissioner Carol Griffith said that turning down funding for a pandemic response while case rates continue to surge absolutely sent the wrong message. "I guess my fear here is if we turn down these funds, what message does that send for your department back to the state? If something else should come our way...whether it's COVID or something else that threatens the health of Livingston County, will we be overlooked? Will the state just say 'You really don't care, we won't share funds with you.' What are we setting ourselves up here for the future? Are we shortsighted right now looking at the fear that we have currently or what's coming at us in the future?"

Griffith also noted that a major part of why Livingston County has such low case rates and hospitalizations is due to the actions that the health department has taken during the pandemic and that by starving of it of this funding, officials were risking a reverse in that equation.

But in the end, it wasn’t enough to convince commissioners to accept the funding. Board Chair Wes Nakagiri said the issue for him was government overreach and he didn’t feel the money was needed. "If we turn this money down, am I preventing someone from getting a vaccine? I'm concluding no. That is my conclusion and from that standpoint, I am going to vote against taking the money."

While Nakagiri’s statement was met with applause from the audience, it generated a heated response from Judy Daubenmier, Chair of the Livingston County Democrats. She told WHMI that, “A lot of what Wes Nakagiri does is just foolish or political grandstanding, but this is dangerous. It will hurt people needlessly." She added that it was “sad” that county commissioners were “throwing in the towel in the fight against covid just as cases are on the upswing again.” Daubenmier added that “More people will get sick needlessly due to their blind hatred of anything related to science, the governor, and the president.”

Meanwhile, morale at the LCHD is reported to be very low, according to several employees that reached out to WHMI following the vote. One worker, who wished to remain anonymous out of fear for their job, told WHMI that they were “appalled that we ran 24/7 during a pandemic and left our families at home so we could help the citizens of Livingston County and this is the thanks we get.”

When asked for a comment about the vote, McCormick told WHMI that she was "disappointed that the Resolution to accept the funding to assist our efforts for our public health response to COVID-19 did not get support at the Finance Committee today. This funding is used for personnel and overhead costs that allows us to keep up with case and outbreak investigations along with vaccination efforts and outreach to vulnerable populations. We have several grant funded positions that assist in these efforts so that we can continue our other service program activities. We are still mandated to follow on positive COVID cases and will need to evaluate the best way to continue our effort keeping our residents informed and safe with our dedicated public health workforce."

Livingston County Administrator Nathan Burd says in light of the rejection of the funding, they will have to evaluate their options for continuing services related to the COVID-19 response as their current funding agreement expires on September 30.

A request for follow-up comment has also been made to Commissioner Nakagiri.